|Terminal 4 warehouse filled with the baggage of Japanese awaiting repatriation|
As some of you are aware, I spend a day every other week at Tom Robinson's Historic Photo Archive located in an old medical building in Saint Johns. Lately I have been going through boxes of negatives of photos taken by Larry Barber, an Oregonian reporter who covered the waterfront for most of the 20th century. The negatives are in envelopes with sometimes cryptic messages scrawled on them by Mr. Barber. My duties are to decipher the scrawl and search the Oregonian database to see if I can find news articles related to the photographs. Most of the images are interesting in one way or another, but sometimes I stumble upon an image that reveals a story so unexpected and fascinating that I lay aside my other projects and share it with you, dear readers.
Today I came upon an envelope with the following words scrawled thereon: "Jay baggage 23 frt earloads from Tule Lake Ariz + N Mex." Inside was a single image of a warehouse with piles of boxes and duffle bags. I recognized the warehouse as being one of the old break bulk warehouses at Terminal 4, a place I had spent countless hours back in my waterfront days. The image and description made no sense, and as their was no date, I was just about to lay it aside when it occurred to me that it was "Jap" not "Jay." This perked my interest, because I thought it was connected with the Japanese internment camps of World War II. After a period of digging, I came upon the surprising answer to the mystery of the Japanese baggage piled in the Terminal 4 warehouse: it was not the baggage belonging to internees returning to their homes in Portland, but to Japanese repatriating to Japan. They had had enough of the United States, a country that imprisoned its own citizens for no crime other than their race, a country filled with hatred for them—as Japanese—and a country that had dropped the most demonic weapon ever conceived by man on the land of their ancestors after having fire bombed its cities to oblivion.
(By way of disclosure, I should mention that I spent my childhood and early teens in Japan, and am inclined to be sympathetic towards their plight. My father was a prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines during WWII. He was moved to go to Japan as a missionary, even though his sufferings at the hands of the Japanese military had been a terrible and prolonged ordeal. )
On December 27, 1945, the first trainload of 1,800 Japanese rolled into Portland from an internment camp at Tule Lake, in the high desert of northern California. Waiting for them in the slip at Terminal 4 was the largest vessel to ever enter the Willamette, the 610 foot transport General W. H. Gordon. When the vessel was loaded, it would escort 4,500 Japanese-Americans, from all parts of the country, to a land that many of them had never seen.
I was quite surprised that I had never heard of this event. All my life I had heard stories, and even knew people who had been interned in the Japanese-American internment camps. Had I thought about it, I may have considered that a handful of the internees would have repatriated to Japan after the war, but the facts I discovered today astonished me. Over 20,000 Japanese chose to renounce their U.S. citizenship and leave the country for Japan at the end of the war. A report by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians suggests that it was the prolonged detention that created this number of repatriates. Earlier in the war, in 1942, the War Relocation Authority had received only 2,255 applications for repatriation. By the next year this had risen to 9,000, and by the end
of 1945 the number had surpassed 20,000—representing 18 percent of the total population of internees.
The news report of December 27 says that "each man" was permitted to take aboard $60, plus their earnings for work done at Tule Lake—"sometimes up to $1,000." The report was careful to point out that "many wore new shoes, and new clothes." The place racism reared its ugly head the highest in this article was when one of the soldiers guarding the Japanese was interviewed:
"Damn!" said a soldier, "I can't see why they send these people over on the finest ship on the Pacific coast. Why didn't they put them on LSTs to get seasick like our boys. We Americans are suckers."
The article ends with the words:
Some time Saturday or Sunday the long blast of a farewell whistle will break all ties with the U.S.A. proper for 4500 ex-residents.
Many of these people went to Japan with the express desire to help in the reconstruction. It is certain that these 20,000 or so Japanese ex-Americans were quite valuable in the reconstruction. It is also certain that had we not imprisoned these Americans, as we did not imprison German Americans, or Italian Americans, they would have been even more valuable as farmers, teachers, doctors, etc., and our nation would have been better for not giving into ugly, racist tendencies.